A few weeks ago a visiting preacher talked to us very enthusiastically about her recent visit to Wittenberg. This is the city where Martin Luther pinned his 95 declarations on the church door at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation on 31st October 1517. The preacher recounted how she was relieved of a weight of guilt when she recognised the force of the verse in the epistle to the Romans which led to Martin Luther’s rejection of catholicism. He emerged from a life of self-loathing and a sense of unworthiness, a conviction that he could never be forgiven. The verse (ch 1 v 17) ……reads: [the gospel] is the saving power of God for everyone who has faith…….because in it the righteousness of God is seen at work, beginning in faith and ending in faith.
Justification, eternal salvation, by faith was at the heart of Martin Luther’s conversion experience. He preached that faith, not works, was the crucial basis of a Christian life.
Luther was brought up as a conventional Catholic; he answered a vocation to become an Augustinian monk. As a result of his obsession with his own sinfulness, he threw himself into the monastic life. He made himself ill by the level of his fasting and the lengthy periods of prayer during which he gave himself up, in his own words, to ‘howling and despair’. He studied and taught theology at the University of Wittenberg and wrote volumes of analysis and explanation of the scriptures, while he wrestled with depression and anxiety.
However, the convergence of two significant events at the end of the middle ages brought about a most dramatic change in his life. One was the invention of the printing press. In England, William Tyndale took advantage of this transforming piece of machinery to publish copies of his own translation of scripture into English. Martin Luther introduced the bible in German to those of his fellow countrymen who could read. Both men were breaking the law by distributing the bible in the mother tongue.
There is a much quoted story of a conversation between Tyndale and a fellow priest, a man who clung to the tradition that the bible was a holy book reserved for scholars, not to be made accessible to the common people. This priest insisted that as long as the people had the Bishop of Rome’s laws, they didn’t need to read the bible. Tyndale’s reply has become part of the history of the English reformation. He said: I defy the pope and his laws. If God spare my life, I will make the boy that driveth the plough know more of scripture than thou dost.
Tyndale paid with his life for his bravery – he was strangled and his body was burned so that no-one could claim to have a relic of his corpse. Luther’s defiance, his challenge of the authority of the pope and his insistence that authority rested in Holy Scripture was passionate and successful. ‘I do not trust either in pope or councils of the church, for they have often erred and contradicted themselves. I am bound by scripture …….my conscience is captive to the word of God.’
Luther was able to capitalise on the disaffected and disgusted reaction to the corruption of catholicism, particularly at the scandals resulting from the sale of indulgences. Pope Leo X was pouring money into the building of the basilica in Rome, that Renaissance masterpiece full of glorious works of art and craft. Nearer home, Archbishop Albrecht of Magdeburg won the election to the much more prestigious Archbishopric of Mainz, ensuring a rise in his status and his wealth. Both men raised vast funds for these alpha projects by taking money from rich and poor on the basis that they were buying exemption from years of torment in purgatory. Chaucer is scathing about this practice in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales – Hell, he says, lives in the Archdeacon’s purse. Life in the Middle Ages was often nasty, brutish and short. No wonder vulnerable people were desperate to secure for themselves an escape after death from the horrors of the pains of hell, their punishment for a life of sinfulness on earth.
Here’s a sweeping generalisation. The English Reformation was political. The German Reformation was theological. Both achieved the great blessing we enjoy of freedom: from superstition, from pontifical statements of doctrine which don’t stand up to reason, from veneration verging on idolatry. We have access to the bible and can use commentaries. We can set passages in context, both historical, social and literary. We can hold up the text against the light of our own experience. Hamlet, a man of the Renaissance who at the beginning of Shakespeare’s play returned to Denmark from Wittenberg, stated his firm conviction that we are given our intellect so that we can use it.
Sure, he that made us…….
gave us not
That capability and godlike reason
To fust in us unused. (Fust is an old French word meaning to grow mouldy.)
These lines could have been spoken by Martin Luther.
We understand why Martin Luther found release and energy from a sense that forgiveness is a gift from God which liberated him from the burden of guilt imposed on him by medieval catholicism. God gives us the capacity for faith and God rewards us for building our lives on this foundation. What we do is a poor second; the prize comes to those who have faith. At the Reformation, humanity learned how to rise from its knees, to end its sense of unworthiness and stand before God as a creature with dignity, with value, with hope of salvation through faith. Large sections of the Pauline epistles reinforce this view.
But Paul’s theology doesn’t stop there. Our NT lesson this morning takes us beyond belief as a way of life. It commands us to show our faith in works. Contribute to the needs of God’s people……….If your enemy is hungry, feed him. This passage links us directly with Jesus’s teaching in Matthew’s gospel: [at the last day] the righteous will say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The reply will come, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Luther was a prolific writer of hymns: Praise to the lord the almighty the king of creation; o my soul praise him for he is thy help and salvation.
A safe stronghold our God is still, a trusty shield and weapon. He’ll help us clear of all the ill that hath us now o’ertaken. (This came to be known as the Battle Hymn of the Reformation.) They’re based on human experience, the human search for meaning and for God.
In this 5th centenary year, let’s give thanks for the Reformation and its legacy. We are the beneficiaries of the tradition established five centuries ago – the richness of our faith and our freedom to live by it, liberation from the fear of hell and purgatory, the gift of an autonomous mind, the strain of Christian humanism that allows us to relax in the knowledge that we’re loved and valued and have dignity in the sight of God.
Margaret is a Reader and has been a worshipper at the Ascension since the 1970's
There is no substitute for attending church – the communion, the community (the coffee and biscuits at the end!) ...but if you do miss a Sunday service you can find past sermons here